Wikathon Author Interview | Caris Avendaño Cruz (Marikit and the Ocean of Stars)

At the beginning of 2021, I heard about an upcoming middle grade novel about Filipino gods and monsters and a young girl whose dress was also a map to a magical world. I was super thrilled about the book since it combined two of my favorite things to read about: magic and Filipino mythology. The fact that it was a middle grade book and written by a Filipino author? I clicked that want-to-read button on GoodReads so fast it’s actually ridiculous.

Ever since then, I had been keeping a close eye on Marikit and the Ocean of Stars. With each little teaser the author, Caris Avendaño Cruz, shared on booktwt, I got more and more excited for her debut novel.

Sadly, Marikit and the Ocean of Stars won’t hit the shelves until October of this year so I wasn’t able to include this gorgeous book for my Wikathon TBR. However, I was granted the immense privilege of being able to ask Caris some questions about her debut MG book as well as her own journey to getting published internationally while living in the Philippines. Caris gave me such interesting and wholesome answers. She was a delight to interview!

About Marikit and the Ocean of Stars

A magical middle grade debut, inspired by Filipino folklore, about a ten-year-old girl who embarks on a quest in the world of gods and spirits to save her and her family from a sinister shadow god. Perfect for fans of The Girl Who Drank the Moon and When You Trap a Tiger.
Marikit is used to wearing recycled clothes. Her mother, the best seamstress in the barrio, has become an expert at making do ever since Marikit’s father and brother were lost at sea. But for her tenth birthday, all Marikit wants is something new. So when her mother gifts her a patchwork dress stitched together with leftover scraps from her workshop, Marikit vows to never wear it. That is, until the eve of her birthday, when shadow creatures creep into their home, attempt to take Marikit away, and upend the very life she knew.
When she’s swept away from the human world, Marikit discovers that her dress is a map, one lovingly crafted to lead her to safety in the magical lands of the Engkantos. She trudges through the enchanted lands of mythical creatures, making friends out of monsters and challenging gods. With the help of her friends, including an exuberant firefly and a cursed boy, Marikit journeys through the land of the Engkantos to find the key to saving her family, all without being eaten alive.

Marikit won’t be out until October (less than two months away!) but you can preorder it on Amazon! Or from other book outlets available here. For readers in the Philippines, you can pre-order from National Bookstore, Fully Booked, or even Book Depository.

Author Interview: Caris Avendaño Cruz

First off, huge congrats on your debut novel, Marikit and the Ocean of Stars! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your upcoming book?

CAC: Thank you, Zia! I am a freelance copywriter for online brands and businesses. In my spare hours, I daydream about stories and magic, which take a ridiculous amount of time before actually writing them. Marikit and the Ocean of Stars is a result of those daydreams. It’s a middle-grade fantasy novel with a full Filipino cast, a magical Filipino setting, and Filipino folklore at its heart. Here, ten-year-old Marikit is gifted with a strange dress for her birthday, one that allows her to escape the clutches of the Shadows, navigate the mysterious land of the Engkantos, and find a place called X.

When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?

CAC: Writing has always been an accessible form of expression for me. I was that kid who’d sit in a distant corner, quietly absorbing everything that’s happening all at once. I’ve been writing poems and stories since I was in elementary, but I committed to it during high school where in the middle of lectures (in which our teachers expected us to copy everything they’ve painstakingly scribbled on flimsy manila papers), I’d draft fiction on a different notebook. This will be then passed to my friends during breaks. Those stories weren’t good, but my friends and classmates were just kind enough to read them!

As everyone knows by now, publishing a novel is hard. More so when you’re living outside of the US or UK. What were the specific challenges you faced as a writer living in the Philippines and publishing internationally?

CAC: Honestly, I never thought it was possible for me to get traditionally published. As someone who didn’t belong to a bookish circle, or had literary merits, having my name on a book was a far-fetched dream (my respect to those who didn’t let circumstances and fear stop them from getting published). But after hearing about local authors who successfully thrived in the scene—Gail D. Villanueva, Tanya Guerrero, and Rin Chupeco, among many—I started to dream.

The reality is that many talented Filipino writers miss out on these opportunities because they’re not in the know. But I am glad that there are people and programs that are trying to change that. Thank you for allowing us to share our journeys here. It took me 3 years of querying and 2 books to get an agent. My writing wasn’t ready then.

But at the same time, I need to acknowledge that the industry has been slow to opening to more diverse voices. At one point, a respectful industry professional was surprised that I could speak English. Another rescinded their offer because I lived in the Philippines, reasoning that I won’t be able to join classroom visits and tours in person. It’s hard to see those doors close right in front of my face, but the goal remains the same: to fill the shelves with Filipino-authored books and stories. And since there are so many writers like me with the same dream, we hold on to possibilities, and make the most of them.

Tell us about how Marikit and the Ocean of Stars came to be. Where did the idea of it come from? Were you inspired by any books or other media? How long did it take you to finish it?

CAC: Marikit and the Ocean of Stars is a love letter to my two favorite women in the world: my mother and my grandmother, who shared the same birthday. My grandmother was a seamstress; she had a vintage Makinang de Padyak which my mother took home when my grandma passed on. Following grandma’s footsteps, my mother started sewing things for us. Marikit echoes their mother-and-daughter bond and the magic of having the same birthday.

I have always loved children’s books. They carry a sweet, innocent kind of courage, something so beautiful to read even as an adult. Some of my favorite books that quietly wove their way in Marikit include Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series and Erin Entrada Kelly’s Lalani of the Distant Sea.

I drafted Marikit in 2019, and the book was completed in 2020 just in time for a pitch party, where my agent found me.

I’m super excited to read your book! I love reading stories featuring Filipino mythology and folklore. What got you into the subject?

CAC: Oh, I’ve always loved our lore! I remember stories of Bathala baking the first humans in a kiln (among our many origin stories), his fights with Aman Sinaya, the Tigmamanukan that signified blessings or omens, and so many tales. These are my favorite parts of our Panitikan (I don’t know if our generations have the same reading material, but these books were thick and if a teacher threw it across the room because of classroom chaos, any victim will be in pain).

Now that I’ve started reading more of our myths, I think so many stories have yet to take the spotlight. I hope our folks from our many, beautiful regions get the chance to tell those.

Introduce us to your character, Marikit. What kind of person is she?

CAC: Marikit is a lively little girl who lives in Barrio Magiting. She was quietly insecure because she always wore secondhand clothes—well, if you’re in a classroom where children often showed off their new things, there’s a chance to feel awkward, too. All she wished for her birthday was something new; after all, her mother was the barrio’s best seamstress. But we don’t always get what we want, do we? Mostly not in ways we expect them to be. Marikit must learn the hard way of finding the priceless beauty in her mother’s gift. And it was more than what her eyes could see.

Marikit and the Ocean of Stars features engkantos and other supernatural creatures. I wondered if, like most Filipinos, you had a childhood encounter with the supernatural? I’d love to hear it!

CAC: I am lucky enough to have never seen one because I’m a coward! But I had so many scary stories as a child. My grandma’s house was the old kind and had traditional panel windows near her bed. Whenever I’d sleep over, I’d watch her open those windows so wide at night. The evening breeze was refreshing, but the drawback was I’d always imagine a manananggal flying by and dragging me away. I’d hurry to sleep so that if it happens, it would hurt less.

There’s a bamboo grove right in front of our home, and I always suspected that tikbalangs or kapres lived in them; the grove was thick enough to hide a large, menacing Engkanto. Once, I walked close to the grove, then I heard voices speaking right inside it! I ran home as fast as I could and told my mother. To my surprise, she said that there was a community living on the other side of those groves! The groves have thinned out now and people have carved a path so they could walk in and out of it.

What do you want readers to get out of Marikit and the Ocean of Stars?

CAC: I want children to find beauty and magic in the most mundane things: in threads and patches and crayons and pens and rocks lying around the road. I want them to feel that they, too, have superpowers, when they do the things that they love. I urge them to treat everything around them kindly, for we are a part of a great infinity. And may they know, that even spoken in the most unusual languages, they are immensely loved, and may that love carry them through their most difficult journeys.

What’s next for you as a writer? Do you have any projects you’re currently working on?

CAC: I am going to write more of our heroes. More of us. It will be kayumanggi at the forefront, in stories that bear gentle courage and sweeping adventures. I want to write about the things we loved as children, our small joys and bitter lessons, with hopes that the future generation will uncover them from the dust of cold technology, and learn from them.

Thanks again for answering my questions, Caris! Where can people find you online?

CAC: I ramble via @carisavencruz on most social media platforms. For my future books, please bookmark carisavendanocruz.com. Readers who’d like to preorder Marikit can do so through this link (or their preferred indie bookstores), and they can add Marikit on Goodreads.

Thank you so much for this interview, Zia! I had so much fun and I hope you did, too.

What a time to be a Filipino reader! So many incredible Filipino authors coming out with books that tell stories about our myths and legends. When I was younger, I didn’t think it was possible for a Filipino writer to not only publish internationally but to also thrive in their scene. Just as Caris was inspired by the successes of Filipino authors like Gail Villanueva, Tanya Guerrero, and Rin Chupeco, I’m positive Caris will inspire budding Filipino writers to come out with their own stories too. We need more stories that are unapologetically Filipino.

I cannot wait to get my hands on Marikit and the Ocean of Stars! October can’t come any sooner!


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